Is life insurance taxable?


Life insurance death benefit proceeds are typically tax-free lump sums of money, but there are some circumstances under which they’re subject to taxation.

Colin Lalley 1600

Colin Lalley

Published May 18, 2020


  • Life insurance death benefits are generally issued tax-free

  • Incremental payouts and employer-provided group life insurance may be taxed

  • You should speak to a licensed financial advisor about the tax implications of your life insurance policy

Life insurance is one of the best ways to build a financial safety net. It provides money to beneficiaries to pay for things like college, a mortgage and more. But most large sums of money, like lottery winnings, are subject to tax.

So are life insurance proceeds taxable? Usually not, but some scenarios do allow for the death benefit to be taxed.

In this article:

Life insurance and the tax code

This article is concerned with whether or not life insurance is taxable. That’s determined by specific sections of the U.S. tax code. Together, these codes create guidelines on what falls under life insurance tax rules and what doesn't.

Tax code sections to know

  • Certain Death Benefits (U.S. Code, Title 26, Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter B, Part III, § 101) — This section discusses benefits received by “reason of death.” It sets the groundwork for the circumstances under which someone receives life insurance benefits, including accelerated death benefits — benefits from an insured who hasn’t died but is terminally ill.

  • Life Insurance contract defined (U.S. Code, Title 26, Subtitle F, Chapter 79, § 7702) – Life insurance contract defined** — In short, this section answers the question, “what is life insurance?”

  • Life insurance gross income(U.S. Code, Title 26, Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter L, Part I, Subpart B, § 803)** — This section notes that dividends are not taxable — something that’s important in permanent cash-value life insurance policies.

It’s not required for a shopper to know the ins and outs of the entire U.S. tax code; a financial adviser can help you navigate the details and determine exactly what is and isn’t taxable.

Types of Taxes That Can Make Life Insurance Taxable

Because a life insurance death benefit usually isn’t considered taxable income, income tax usually doesn’t apply. However, the four types of taxes that policyholders and beneficiaries should be most aware of are estate taxes, inheritance taxes, gift taxes, and the generation-skipping transfer tax.

  • Estate tax — The federal estate tax applies to high-value estates. As of 2020, the current estate tax threshold is $11.58 million, up from $11.4 million in 2019. Any amount of your estate over the estate tax threshold is subject to taxation.

  • Generation-skipping transfer tax — As the name implies, this applies to assets that skip a generation (for instance, a grandparent leaving property to a grandchild). It has the same exemption limits as the estate tax.

  • Inheritance tax — A tax levied on inherited money, property, investments, or other assets. It is only collected by six states and can range from 15-20%.

  • Gift tax — A federal tax on assets given as gifts. The gift tax is in place to prevent people from avoiding taxes by “gifting” money rather than it being included in an estate. This most often comes into play when the policyholder is still alive and transfers a policy to a beneficiary. There is a lifetime exemption that is the same as the estate tax as well as an annual exemption ($15,000 as of 2020).

These taxes will not apply in every situation, and most people will be exempt from them due to their high limits. But they’re important to keep in mind, as they’re each a valuable component of estate planning.

When a life insurance death benefit can be taxable

In general, life insurance proceeds are not subject to taxation. The money is typically disbursed tax-free to any beneficiaries. However, there are some instances when taxes come into play; they include circumstances involving incremental payouts, estate size, cash-value life insurance, selling a policy, and group life insurance.

When you receive an incremental payout

A life insurance death benefit is most often doled out as one lump sum of money. However, a beneficiary can choose to receive it in incremental payouts. This can be helpful for someone who isn’t particularly financially responsible; monthly installments better replicate a lost income stream and can be easier to handle than one lump sum of tens of thousands of dollars.

However, if a beneficiary elects to go with an installment plan for the life insurance payout, the total death benefit will accrue interest over the years. The beneficiary won’t be taxed on the benefit, but may be taxed on the interest gained. This is an important extra cost to be mindful of, and an argument for taking the death benefit as a lump sum.

When your estate exceeds the estate tax

If the addition of the death benefit causes your assets to exceed the estate tax threshold, your estate may be subject to taxation. One way to avoid this is to use an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT), so the death benefit is not counted as part of your estate. The trust disburses the death benefit to your beneficiaries. Additionally, you may gift a life insurance policy you already have to the ILIT, but if the policy hasn’t been part of the ILIT for more than three years when you die, then the death benefit will still be included in the estate.

One key term to know when it comes to irrevocable life insurance trusts is Crummey powers, which is essentially a way to pass assets to beneficiaries free of the gift or estate tax, making it completely tax-exempt. It may be more complex than most people need, but a financial adviser can help implement it if necessary.


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When you have a cash value life insurance policy

Term life insurance policies are straightforward in that there’s only a death benefit to deal with. But permanent policies like whole life insurance are more complicated because they come with an investment-like cash-value component.

Cash-value policies can pay out dividends. These are called participating policies. In contrast, non-participating policies do not pay out dividends (term life insurance is an example of this; there are, less commonly, non-participating whole life insurance). Dividend payments are not taxable, as stated in the U.S. tax code.

The cash value of a policy can increase over the years (or decrease), but usually a whole life insurer offers a guaranteed minimum interest. Cash value gains are tax-deferred. Withdrawals less than or equal to what you’ve paid into the policy, known as the cash basis, are not taxable. However, withdrawals greater than the cash basis are taxable.

Additionally, policyholders can borrow against the cash value, essentially taking out a loan. Any unpaid loans (for example, if the policy lapses) are taxable.

Whole life policyholders can also surrender a policy for a cash amount. If there’s any profit made from the surrender, it’s subject to taxation.

When you have group life insurance

Some employers offer group life insurance as a workplace benefit. This usually isn’t a substitute for an individual policy because the coverage isn’t very high. The coverage amount also plays a role in taxation.

If you get life insurance coverage through your work and your employer is subsidizing the cost, any coverage over $50,000 is treated as income and you’ll be taxed accordingly. Any amount under $50,000 is not taxed.

When you sell a life insurance policy

It’s possible to sell the rights of a life insurance policy to a third party. Similar to surrendering a cash value policy, if you sell a policy and make any profit off of it, that profit will be taxed as earned income.

Is return of premium life insurance taxable?

Return of premium life insurance policies do just what they say: When the policy is up, the premiums paid over the previous decades are returned to the policyholder.

Getting a large lump sum of money usually incurs taxes — think lotto winnings, for example.

But a return of premium is tax-free. That’s because it’s literally just a refund — your money gets returned to you — and not a payment. It’s refunded more or less in the same amount as it was 10, 20 or 30 years previous (minus any potential fees).

But that’s both a pro and con of return of premium life insurance. You don’t have to pay taxes on the money returned, but you’ve also been paying much more than you would for a traditional policy — usually about 30% more than a comparable standard term policy. Plus, you will have missed out on decades worth of interest by investing the difference. Investing $50 more a month over 30 years, including compounding interest, adds up.

The takeaway

Generally, life insurance is not taxable. However, it’s important to never make assumptions about which life insurance proceeds are taxable and which aren’t, as every financial situation is different. Always speak to a financial adviser about your estate plans to ensure your beneficiaries are not saddled with undue burden.